In what was arguably the most talked about coaching sweepstakes in hockey history, Mike Babcock finally ended speculation when he signed a monstrous eight-year, $50 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in May. It was the type of deal that raised eyebrows; one that made fans question whether a coach is ever worth that kind of money. Given the $6.25 million AAV, they had a point.
From Toronto’s perspective, this deal was a no-brainer. The Leafs are one of the most profitable organizations in the NHL, and given the seemingly endless stacks of cash MLSE (Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment) has, doling out a massive contract to Babcock was but a drop in the bucket. The fact that the deal doesn’t count towards the salary cap doesn’t hurt, either.
Still, as the highest paid coach in the league, the pressure to deliver — especially in a hockey town like Toronto — becomes that much greater, and the margin for error that much slimmer. From the circus that is Toronto sports media, to the growing impatience of Leafs fans, Babcock has his hands full in the city often called “the center of the hockey universe.”
Through the first quarter of the season, the results haven’t exactly been there for the Leafs. With just 21 points in 24 games and a minus-10 goal differential, Toronto finds itself dead-last in the Atlantic Division. Looking at the standings, it doesn’t appear as though Babcock has made any difference at all. The Leafs are in the same spot they were in 2014-15, and the team is in prime position to land another one of their signature high draft picks. The losing tradition has continued.
However, to say the 2015-16 Leafs are playing at the same level as the 2014-15 version of the team could not be further from the truth. Toronto may not be racking up the points right now, but they’re playing a different brand of hockey — a winning brand of hockey — and coach Babcock is a big reason why.
Babcock’s Impact on Leafs
Last season, the Leafs were embarrassing to watch. They didn’t know how to manage the puck, were regularly outshot and didn’t have a clue how to efficiently exit the defensive zone. The team was so bad defensively, in fact, that they were the second-most exposed team — only the Buffalo Sabres were worse — at even strength, giving up over 32 scoring chances per game. Toronto’s inability to maintain possession, combined with their atrocious special teams, made them an easy target for opponents on many nights.
Fast forward to this season, and the Leafs are a completely different team. They’re seeing the best possession numbers they have in years and are actually playing to win, rather than clinging to hope.
As shown above, Toronto’s play has seen a noticeable improvement across the board. They’re controlling the puck more, generating more scoring chances and actually outshooting opponents from time to time. Perhaps the most impressive change, however, has been their drastic turnaround on defense.
Now, the Leafs still have a ways to go, but given that they were giving up over 32 scoring chances per 60 minutes at even strength, the fact that number has gone down to 26 — a 22 percent drop from last season — is outstanding. And Toronto managed to do all this while creating more offense.
From forechecking harder, to making the high-percentage play, Toronto is now playing at a level sustainable for long-term success. The concrete numbers may not be there, but the 2015-16 Leafs have been a lot better than their record indicates. The team is shooting at an incredibly low rate — a rate bound to even out by season’s end — and if they can get some consistent goaltending out of James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier, they just might be competing for a playoff spot by April.
On the other hand, the Detroit Red Wings find themselves comfortably inside the top three in the Atlantic Division and look poised to make the playoffs for a 24th consecutive season. How has life without Babcock been for them, though?
Are the Wings Missing Babcock?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Obviously, it’s never a good thing when one of the best coaches in the game leaves for a division rival, and while Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill is a brilliant hockey mind, it’s hard to replace a guy like Mike Babcock.
Detroit started out the season kind of sluggish, but in their last 10 games, they’ve managed to put together a respectable 5-2-3 record. Their 28 points are nothing to sneeze at, but the underlying statistics suggest the Red Wings are going through some growing pains with a new coach behind the bench.
With injuries to the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Brad Richards and Kyle Quincey, among others, Detroit has certainly run into their share of injury problems, but given the Wings’ significant dip in possession and overall play, one has to question if things would be different had Babcock been behind the bench.
Last season, the Wings were fifth in score-adjusted Corsi (shot attempts) and, aside from the Los Angeles Kings, were the best shot suppressing team in the league. Detroit’s dropped 10 spots in CA60 (shot attempts against per 60 minutes) at even strength since; yet, barring the Brad Richards and Mike Green additions, the team hasn’t changed. For such a skilled squad, particularly up front, their numbers are pedestrian this year. So how do you explain the massive drop-off?
Babcock coached Detroit for 10 seasons, and in that time, he led his teams to 10 straight playoff appearances and a Stanley Cup in 2007-08. Babcock instilled a strong ethic and no-quit attitude from Day 1; one that resonated well with his players. His teams always played a smart, disciplined brand of hockey that thrived off the transition game. It translated to off-the-charts results.
To put things in perspective, Detroit has a respectable 50.4 CF% (shot attempts for percentage) at even strength in 2015-16. Remarkably, no team had a possession percentage that low under Babcock — with the exception of this season’s Leafs, but that’s forgivable given the player personnel he has to work with in Toronto. From killing their opponents with speed, to just flat-out dominance at both ends of the ice, Babcock-coached teams were never easy to play against.
This season, the Wings’ numbers are down across the board (with the exception of goaltending). They have gone from Stanley Cup contenders to playoff contenders in one short season. Detroit had the luxury of having an All-Star coach for 10 years, but now that he’s moved on, it’s evident just how much he meant to that team. While the Red Wings currently sit in a playoff spot, their postseason streak could be in jeopardy after losing one of the best hockey minds in the business.
Coaches get the brunt of the blame when things go wrong, but they don’t often receive any praise when things go right. This season, Mike Babcock is proving just how much of a difference a good coach can make. While the players are the ones who ultimately decide the game, without structure, even the Sidney Crosbys of the world have a hard time playing to their full potential.
The Leafs definitely anted up when they signed Babcock, and while they may not be reaping the benefits right now, the future looks brighter in Hogtown than it has in the last decade.
Ryan graduated from the Ryerson School of Journalism in 2015 and is now pursuing a career in sports media. He also works at STATS LLC as a hockey reporter and the Rant Media Network as a copy editor.